Friday Full-Length: Lamp of the Universe, The Cosmic Union

Posted in Bootleg Theater on November 3rd, 2017 by JJ Koczan

Lamp of the Universe, The Cosmic Union (2001)

Whatever you’re doing, stop. Take a minute. Take an hour. Take whatever you need to take, and breathe. That seems to be the underlying message of Lamp of the Universe‘s 2001 debut album, The Cosmic Union. The ongoing psychedelic project was formed and continues to be manned solely by Craig Williamson, guitarist at the time for the underrated Datura, who in 2001 were two years removed from the release of their second and — as would turn out to be — final full-length, 1999’s Visions for the Celestial. Immediately, Lamp of the Universe presented a different direction for the Hamilton, New Zealand-based vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, engaging richly textured Eastern-influenced acid folk of rare potency. Sitar, tabla, keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars, chimes, synth, various percussive elements and a cascade of watery melodies lend The Cosmic Union an experimentalist feel, but in the years and numerous offerings since, Williamson has never deviated from the core vibe Lamp of the Universe established its first time out, despite delving into drone, full-band sounds, and other avenues of exploration.

Still, if Lamp of the Universe has always been a project with a mission, part of that mission has been not sounding like a band with a mission. That is to say, to listen to the seeping space-born pastoralism of “Born in the Rays of the Third Eye,” the sense of inner peace that comes through is nigh unmatched in psychedelic realms. Likewise the acoustic strum of the later “Give Yourself to Love,” on which Williamson offers subtle self-harmonies atop birdsong-esque guitar noise and backing swirl. Taken together, “Born in the Rays of the Third Eye,” the subsequent nine-minute highlight “Lotus of a Thousand Petals” and the late wah-soaked electrified soloing atop hand percussion of “In the Mystic Light” form an essential salvo for anyone who would seek to understand Williamson‘s methods. Core elements of Lamp of the Universe are laid as bare as the figures on The Cosmic Union‘s cover art. Key rhythms are set. Melodic progressions are established. Methods are honed. It’s by no means even close to the entirety of the scope that Wiliamson has unfurled with the project over the last 16 years, but it’s definitely the foundation, and as the theme of love as spiritual and physical entity arises in “Give Yourself to Love” and “Freedom in Your Mind” looses itself on organ-flourish and ultimate guitar drift — gorgeous, flowing, and utterly gone — the increasing complexity of the overarching approach does nothing to undercut the resonant ambience or the serenity that seems to emanate warmly from each of the album’s beautiful arrangements, so seemingly minimal and yet so spacious on “Her Cosmic Light” where only a few songs prior, “Lotus of a Thousand Petals” had seemed nearly like an entire group celebration of consciousness and mantra, universe-minded, somehow sexual and coherent despite the fact that its intricacy is the result of one person’s work. Williamson‘s skill as a craftsman is on ready display throughout the eight tracks of the original release, but there never seems to be a formula employed.

Rather, the variety seems to emerge as a result of organic processes, and a balance is struck between experimentalism and poise of songwriting. The peaceful noodling of “Her Cosmic Light” is a prime example of this, but one can hear it all throughout The Cosmic Union as well, whether it’s the uptempo, handclap-ready circle-folk of the sitar-led “What Love Can Bring,” or the immersive hypnotism brought on by “In the Mystic Light”‘s slow-moving liquefied swirl. Beauty is central to the process, and whether it’s longer tracks or shorter, freak folk or freak psych, layered or singular in delivery, Lamp of the Universe‘s debut offers a listening experience unlike anything I’ve encountered since — and make no mistake, I’ve looked. There’s purpose behind it, but the purpose is having no purpose. It oozes forward and yet keeps its feet on solid ground. Its scope is vast and diverse, but it remains deeply human and believable as the output of a lone individual. As “Tantra Asana” closes out with sitar echoing over a backing drone, building to one last consuming, gorgeous melody, keyboards emerging late to further the depth of Williamson‘s arrangement — again, without distracting from the effectiveness thereof — the shimmer of the album as a whole is reaffirmed, and though one couldn’t have known then what was being set in motion, it’s plain to hear across the 50-plus-minute outing that a world is being made, a place in which to dwell.

The Cosmic Union remains a joy to dwell in, and as the beginning point of a Lamp of the Universe discography that’s gone on to include no fewer than 10 full-lengths — the latest of which, Hidden Knowledge (review here), came out last year on Clostridium Records — it is all the more a genuinely special landmark. Williamson has at times over the last half-decade lent his focus more toward the heavy psych rock trio Arc of Ascent, whose third long-player, Realms of the Metaphysical (review here), arrived earlier in 2017, but he seems to perpetually return to Lamp of the Universe — a new split with Kanoi is currently on offer that I’m hoping I get the chance to check out — leading one to believe the project is as essential to him as it should be to anyone who’s ever sought an experience of communion with the aurally lysergic.

Note the version above comes from the Lamp of the Universe Bandcamp page and includes the bonus track “By the Grace of Love.” This is featured on the 2011 reissue that came via Williamson‘s own Astral Projection imprint. The album was originally released via Cranium Records.

Bottom line is I love this record, and I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Interesting week. I guess it started last Friday when The Patient Mrs., The Pecan and I made a daring escape from the hospital and headed home, the baby for the first time. The weekend was kind of a blur. I tried to do as much writing as I could, changed diapers, did daddy-stuff, cleaned as much as possible, made sure The Patient Mrs. was fed and so on. We listened to music. Family came up on Saturday or Sunday. I don’t remember which.

Then the power went out. That might’ve been Monday evening. There was a storm. Apparently a decent section of the Northeast was hit and because it’s 1930 and we put electric wires on poles in the air instead of in the ground where they belong, we lost power. In the three years we’ve lived in this spot, we’ve never had the power go out for more than an hour. New baby home? Two days. Solid. Bound to happen.

I thought we were going to die. I think it was Monday night. We toughed it out changing diapers and doing feedings by flashlight, but it was cold. Tuesday we decided pretty early on to get the hell out of dodge. We had an appointment in Providence on Wednesday anyway, so Tuesday afternoon I packed up the car and drove us the 45 minutes to Rhode Island. The Pecan sleeps in the car anyhow. I hear that’s a baby thing. There was a doctor’s appointment in there — the “you’ve been born” check-in for The Pecan; all is well — I think on Wednesday, and when we got back home after that, the lights had miraculously been turned back on. We damn near wept with joy. Then I made myself a protein shake for dinner. It was unbelievably good.

Yesterday was relatively quiet. A short walk, a daring half-hour of alone time for The Pecan and I while The Patient Mrs. ran an errand, and so on. Today I think we’re going to try to hit Costco, and then family comes up tomorrow, so yeah, goings on going on and whatnot. You might’ve noticed the last couple days have been lighter on posts, today included. That is not a coincidence. I’m doing the best I can and trying to support my wife as best I can.

Real quick, here’s what’s on tap so far for next week. I’m still waiting for some stuff to come together, so this will likely change:

Mon.: Uffe Lorenzen review/track premiere; Josefus live videos.
Tue.: Fireball Ministry review; Iron Monkey video.
Wed.: Maybe a review/premiere of some new Eggnogg.
Thu.: Six Dumb Questions with Great Electric Quest, I hope.
Fri.: Video premiere & album review of the new The Moth.

Pretty busy but hopefully manageable. We’ll see how it goes, and again, things might shift around pending baby stuff and whatnot. He’s been pretty cool to have around thus far though. He doesn’t have much to say at this point — though he grunts like a madman — but it’s been nice to hang out with the little guy after waiting for so long for him to show up.

Have a great and safe weekend, whatever you’re up to, and please don’t forget to check out the forum and the radio stream. Thanks again for reading.

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Bloodnut Premiere Lyric Video for “Burning Bush”

Posted in Bootleg Theater on July 27th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

bloodnut photo paul harvey

It might take a second to seep in — it did for me, to be sure — but there is indeed a Metallica reference at root in the title of Bloodnut‘s second full-length, St. Ranga. It’s a slant-rhyme and almost the word backwards, but yeah, it’s there. The low-tuning Auckland, New Zealand-based trio are up to more than just that kind of mischief as well on the follow-up to their also-referentially dubbed 2016 debut, Blues from the Red Sons, which played off their status as a “band of gingers” for the fact that all three current members — bassist/vocalist Doug McFarlane, guitarist Doug Robertson and drummer Ty Boniface — have red hair. Songs like album opener “The Space Orangutan” — hence “ranga”; see also the cover art — and the closing “Song of Fire and Ice” ensure that stoner rock charm is alive and flourishing, and like the densely-packed portion of riffs in those songs and between them, ready to engage full-on nod of a traditional type no less long-standing.

I’m talking about groove, people. Bloodnut do it sludgy, raw at times on St. Ranga, but they do it all the same, taking burl and maybe a bit of speed from High on Fire — the 1:38 punker blast “That Fire Inside” being bloodnut st rangaon its own wavelength, but still fast in following second cut “Mark of the Outcast” — and rolling out low-end plunder that stomps or gallops at will. “The Space Orangutan” is the longest cut at 8:45 (immediate points) and gradually picks up from its initial lumber, but a cut like “Burning Bush” — also spelled “Burning Boosh” in the tracklisting — chugs out mid-paced bass pulsations along with lyrics about, what else?, mismatched head and pubic hair colors. The important question, “What makes you think you have to lie and dye?” hits in the verse and the prepare-to-have-it-stuck-in-your-head shout-along hook, “You think you’re under cover/Me and your mother know the truth/When you get under the covers/Lo and behold, the burning boosh,” follows.

Of course it’s a gag, and St. Ranga is nothing without its winks and nods — the penultimate “Red Dead Riders,” for example, would seem to be about the hazards of being pale in bright sunlight — even in the more severely-themed “Mark of the Outcast,” but the 31-minute long-player offers substance in tone and songwriting as well as humor and its stylistic blend of sludge, heavy rock and punk, and Bloodnut prove themselves right to embrace a sonic persona that seems true to the jokes that might fly around their rehearsal room. It makes the whole album seem more honest.

St. Ranga sees its official release Aug. 1. Below, you can check out the premiere of a lyric video for “Burning Bush” and get some background courtesy of the band.

Bloodnut, “Burning Bush” lyric video

Doug McFarlane on “Burning Bush”:

Burning Bush is a little bit of tongue in cheek fun nestled in the middle of a relatively dark and doomy album by comparison. It is about women who choose to hide their fire under a bushel… or different hair colour to what they have naturally.

The rest of St. Ranga covers things like persecution, religion and Norse mythology, but this song is the one song about the opposite sex that every album requires.

The follow up to the 2016 album – Blues From the Red Sons, St.Ranga is raw, visceral and tuned even lower than their first offering. A sludge filled album that still has tongue in cheek elements, it endeavours to cover the darker side of what it means to be red of hair. With songs that cover religious persecution, the negative myths and history surrounding the 2% you might even get a bit of an education of what it’s like to be ginger.

Recorded in a garage session style by fellow ranga Elliot Lawless (of Greenfog) over one weekend and in a rare 4 piece variant of the band, St. Ranga is a clear evolution from their first offering and perhaps a reaction to the polished bit by bit style of recording utilised on Blues From the Red Sons.

Bloodnut on this album is:
Doug McFarlane – Bass, Vox
Nick Smith – Guitar
Kyle Wetton – Guitar
Ty Boniface – Drums

Tracklist:
1. The Space Orangutan
2. Mark Of The Outcast
3. That Fire Inside
4. Burning Bush
5. Red Dead Riders
6. A Song Of Fire And Ice

Recorded and engineered by Elliot Lawless.
Mastered by Nich Cunningham.

Bloodnut is:
Doug McFarlane – Bass/Vox
Ty Boniface – Drums
Doug Robertson – Guitar

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Review & Track Premiere: Arc of Ascent, Realms of the Metaphysical

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on April 6th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

arc of ascent realms of the metaphysical

[Click play above to stream ‘Eye of Sages’ from Arc of Ascent’s Realms of the Metaphysical. Album is out digitally and on CD April 11 via Astral Projection with vinyl to follow this June/July through Clostridium Records.]

It’s been just over half a decade since the release of the last Arc of Ascent album, but to listen to the six component tracks of Realms of the Metaphysical, one hardly gets a sense of time at all, let alone a span of years. The Hamilton, New Zealand, outfit boasts bassist/vocalist Craig Williamson, also of Lamp of the Universe and formerly of ready-for-reissue heavy rockers Datura, and together with rejoined guitarist Matt Cole-Baker — who did not feature on 2012’s The Higher Key (review here) but took part in Arc of Ascent‘s 2010 debut, Circle of the Sun (review here) — and drummer Mark McGeady, who makes his debut here (also handling the cover art), Williamson steers a winding course of cosmic riffing across 46 flowing, nod-worthy minutes.

Issued on CD through his own Astral Projection imprint with vinyl to follow from Clostridium RecordsRealms of the Metaphysical bears the hallmark shamanic circularity of Williamson‘s songcraft, as heard the last couple years in Lamp of the Universe offerings like late 2016’s Hidden Knowledge (review here) and 2015’s The Inner Light of Revelation (review here). That one-man project essentially picked up where Arc of Ascent last left off with its 2013 LP Transcendence (review here) and 2014 splits with Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here).

As Realms of the Metaphysical falls into place with the ongoing stream of output from Williamson, it’s easy as ever to read him as an auteur — and in the case of Lamp of the Universe having no other members, even easier — but the shift in context to Arc of Ascent and the contributions in fullness of sound from McGeady and Cole-Baker aren’t to be understated. Whatever lies at the core of “Eye of Sages” and “In the Light” in terms of songwriting, they are unmistakably the work of a complete band, and suitably weighted that it might require three people to carry them.

Rest assured, the heft comes accompanied by due spaciousness, and as Arc of Ascent seem to begin a return to activity with Realms of the Metaphysical, they do so not at all having lost the blend of craft, atmosphere and lumbering tonality that made their earlier records such riffy celebrations to start with. Repetition, groove and crash are factors right from the start of opener “Set the Planets Free,” and as songs regularly range past seven minutes — only the penultimate “Benediction Moon” is shorter, at 5:58 — there’s plenty of room for parts to flesh out as they will. Still, WilliamsonCole-Baker and McGeady don’t shy away from hooks, and before it moves into its echoing solo section circa the halfway point, “Set the Planets Free” establishes the first of them for them to return to later, which, to their credit, they do.

It seems odd to call something of such largesse straightforward, but part of Arc of Ascent‘s approach has always been their ability to conjure memorable impressions in vast reaches. In doing so, “Set the Planets Free” reclaims the modus, and “Eye of Sages” follows suit with “Hexagram” not far behind. Rolling verses and choruses typify “Eye of Sages,” a harder push emerging early en route to another midpoint spaceout, but it’s at 6:23, when the full plod returns, that the crux of the second track is truly revealed — a stomp and shove that comes to a fervent apex before rumbling out and fading into the layered guitar start of “Hexagram,” which gets underway with a resonant gong hit and takes a more psych-leaning bent overall.

The swirl is welcome, particularly with the clarity of Kenny MacDonald‘s mix and master — Dan Howard and Williamson engineered the recording — and as the side A finale moves into its chorus, it proves to be a vocal highlight from Williamson, who pushes himself to new limits of soulfulness without losing control, and seems all the more commanding as a frontman for that. Where “Set the Planets Free” and “Eyes of Sages” introduced swirling flourish only to return to their more grounded riffing, “Hexagram” chooses to keep pushing further out, with Cole-Baker‘s guitar fading in a lead past three minutes in that will come around again to close after one final chorus runthrough, capping the first half of Realms of the Metaphysical amid a wash of effects.

arc of ascent kelsi j photo

The album breaks neatly into two three-song halves, each on either side of 23 minutes, and with “In the Light,” the trio reengage the thickened nod of the opening duo while setting up a catchy landmark that summarizes much of what’s working best in Arc of Ascent circa 2017. A post-Sleep cadence of riff is immediate, but guitar and keys give an early preview of the broadness to come before Wililamson‘s vocals start the first verse, and “In the Light” lives up to the promise of both its tectonics and its breadth, enacting a march toward a shift after three minutes in that opens wide beneath a multi-stage guitar lead with choral keyboards and a steady forward rhythm.

As one of the three songs over eight minutes long along with “Set the Planets Free” and closer “Temple Stone” still to come, “In the Light” has plenty of time to flesh out this part before switching back to the verse and chorus, but it’s the ending that brings the two sides together — that keyboard line returning amid the full-brunt crash and stomp — that brings its payoff to that next level and makes it such a highlight of Realms of the Metaphysical as a whole. “Benediction Moon” opts for a relatively sans-frills approach, which sets up an effective contrast with “Temple Stone” while underscoring the raw songwriting proficiency of Arc of Ascent as a whole and reminding of the grunge influence tucked away under all that depth in the mix.

In a corresponding shift to the ethereal to “Hexagram” at the end of side A, “Temple Stone” rounds out with the most fervent push into psychedelia on the record. Where cuts like “Set the Planets Free,” “Eye of Sages” and “In the Light” had their psych breaks, beginning usually somewhere around the middle, the finale takes this ethic more to its root, and from its very start — with a layer of sitar resonating over a patient, subdued guitar figure — it sets a lysergic tone. Its verse riffs are still righteously heavy, but the chorus feels more open with a line of organ and keys coming into focus, and by the time the band are three minutes in, they’ve set themselves up to journey into whatever expanses they will. Another chorus finds Williamson again pushing his voice ably, and just past the four-minute mark, the drums and bass drop out and the sitar and guitar take hold.

What’s different about it this time is Williamson adds vocals to that melodic wash, and in so doing gives an impression right out of Lamp of the Universe, effectively tying the two outfits together in the span of one short verse. It’s there and gone to the point that if one isn’t careful it might be missed, but it definitely happens. Drums build back in and they make their way through another chorus en route to a soaking-wet crescendo that finds the lead guitar and organ aligned in their purposes, with the keys playing root notes as the strings solo around them. It’s the keys that ultimately provide the finish as the drums and bass again drop out (save for a tambourine) and the album ends on a long cycle of the organ line that has underscored the song all the while, fading out gradually and gracefully as it hits 9:40.

Realms of the Metaphysical may or may not mark a shift in focus for Williamson‘s creative energies. It could be he’ll work simultaneously on two projects, move back and forth between them as he has, or do something else entirely; pointless to speculate. What’s more important as regards the songs collected here and the flow Arc of Ascent create between them is they demonstrate in no uncertain terms that the band still had more to offer after The Higher Key and still has more to offer now, that there are further, deeper reaches for them to explore as a group, and that they’re willing to do the work of making that exploration a reality. Taken in combination with the quality of the finished product in its entirety, one can only hope their meditative and heavy-footed peripatetics continue to move forward. But if it’s five more years before we get another Arc of Ascent, at least Realms of the Metaphysical lets us know it’ll be worth the wait.

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Beastwars Post “Some Sell Their Souls” Video; Albums Available as Name-Your-Price Download

Posted in Bootleg Theater on April 6th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

beastwars

So is this it? Is this the last we’ll hear from New Zealand crushers Beastwars? Is this their goodbye? As they and their group-therapy audience seem to get raptured at the end of this clip for “Some Sell Their Souls” — I’d have said “spoiler alert,” but we all know the joy is in the journey, not the destination — should we also consider that the actual process of the four-piece being absorbed into oblivion?

If so, they die as they lived — viciously underrated.

Beastwars released their final album, The Death of all Things (review here), last year. At the time, they called it the third in a trilogy behind 2013’s Blood Becomes Fire (review here) and their 2011 self-titled debut (review here), but the bottom line was the band was basically announcing they were done, one way or the other. Their tenure ended with their never having gotten their due internationally for the quality of their output across those three records, and though they drew well in their native New Zealand and Australia, to my knowledge they never made it to Europe for a tour, let alone North America, much to the loss of both continents.

I’ve learned the hard way — also the easy way — over time that you never say never in rock and roll. That is, because Beastwars are done today doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the case in a year, three years, five. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but though we see in the clip for “Some Sell Their Souls” the lineup of vocalist Matt Hyde, guitarist Clayton Anderson, bassist James Woods and drummer Nathan Hickey be taken from this earthly plane as the PR wire seems to confirm that, indeed, that’s a wrap for them, it just seems like this band had something special to them, and they knew it. That can’t be easy to walk away from, say it’s permanent, and have it stick.

But I’ve also learned the hard way to never assume one way or the other. What we have to go on right now, in April 2017, is that after three stellar, grueling, grinding, and at times genuinely uncomfortable albums, Beastwars have called it a day. Whether or not that lasts, it should go without saying they’ll be missed, and should they ever decide to embark on a fourth installment of their “trilogy,” its arrival will be welcome.

To mark their passing, Beastwars have made their three full-lengths available as a name-your-price download via their Bandcamp page from now until April 20. If there’s one of those records you don’t have, you might want to get on that.

Enjoy “Some Sell Their Souls” below:

Beastwars, “Some Sell Their Souls” official video

Having returned in 2016 with one of the year’s most revelatory releases in The Death Of All Things, Beastwars are back one final time with a new video directed by Alistair MacDonald for ‘Some Sell Their Souls’.

The song, sung from the perspective of a troubled singer at a small suburban church who is trapped by his demons and plagued by memories proved to be one of the most talked about songs on last year’s album. Attributed in no small part to singer Matt Hyde’s weathered and worn viewpoint on morality and redemption.

“Like ‘Witches’, the first video off our last album, it was inspired by experiences of the band,” explains drummer Nathan Hickey. “In the case of ‘Witches’ it was in response to a record label exec shrieking, ‘They’re so old!’ when he saw a video of us. So we decided to replace ourselves with a coven of female musicians. The video for ‘Some Sell Their Souls’ was inspired by a set of studio videos we did called The Sundae Sessions, where the audience was sitting around us on chairs. Some of the YouTube comments are hilarious with complaints about how sedate the crowd look, why isn’t there a mosh pit etc. With this video we took the audience response to a Beastwars experience to its extreme.”

The album, produced by the band and James Goldsmith in their hometown of Wellington, New Zealand, mixed by Andrew Schneider (Unsane, Big Business) and mastered by Brad Boatright (Sleep, Windhand) brought with it the closing chapter in the band’s post-apocalyptic trilogy of albums.

As a thank you for the continued support Beastwars received in 2016, their unremitting triptych of sludge – their 2011 debut Beastwars, 2013’s Blood Becomes Fire and last year’s The Death Of All Things – are being offered on Bandcamp as ‘Name Your Price’ up until 20th April 2017 – www.beastwars.bandcamp.com.

Beastwars:
Clayton Anderson – Guitar
Nathan Hickey – Drums
Matt Hyde – Vocals
James Woods – Bass

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Quarterly Review: Grails, Expo Seventy, Coltsblood, Rhino, Cruthu, Spacetrucker, Black Habit, Stone Angels, The Black Willows, Lamagaia

Posted in Reviews on March 31st, 2017 by JJ Koczan

quarterly-review-Charles-Meryon-Labside-Notre-Dame-1854

Arrival. Welcome to the final day of The Obelisk’s Spring 2017 Quarterly Review. After today, I clean off my desktop and start over with a mind toward the next round, which in my head I’ve already scheduled for late June. You know, at the end of the next quarter. I do try to make these things make sense on some level. Anyway, before we get to the last 10 albums, let me please reiterate my thanks to you for reading and say once again that I hope you’ve found something this week that really speaks to you, as I know I have and continue to today. We finish the Quarterly Review out strong to be sure, so even if you’re thinking you’re done and you’ve had enough, you might be surprised by the time you’re through the below.

Quarterly Review #41-50:

Grails, Chalice Hymnal

grails chalice hymnal

Even if one counts the 2013 collection culled from GrailsBlack Tar Prophecies ongoing series of short releases that showed up via Temporary Residence, it’s been a long while since their last proper outing. Deep Politics (review here) was issued in 2011, but it seems the intervening time and members’ participation in other projects – among them Om and Holy Sons in the case of Emil Amos – disappear for Grails on Chalice Hymnal, which speaks directly to its predecessor in sequel pieces like “Deeper Politics,” “Deep Snow II” and “Thorns II,” taking the prog-via-TangerineDream cinematics of Deep Politics to vibrant and continually experimental places on the surprisingly vocalized “Empty Chamber,” the soundscaping “Rebecca” and the imaginative, evocative jazz homage “After the Funeral,” the album’s 10-minute closer. Hearing the John Carpenter keyboard line underpinning “Pelham,” I’m not sure I’d call Chalice Hymnal limitless in its aesthetic – Grails have definitive intentions here, as they always have – but they continue to reside in a space of their own making, and one that has yet to stop expanding its reach.

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Expo Seventy, America Here and Now Sessions

expo seventy america here and now sessions

Yes. Yes. This. With extended two tracks – “First Movement” (22:17) and “Second Movement” (27:04) – unfolding one massive longform immersion that drones pastoral, delves into hypnotic bliss and fills the soul in that way that only raw exploration can, the America Here and Now Sessions from Kansas City (by way of the moon) outfit Expo Seventy is an utter joy to experience. Purposeful and patient in its execution, graceful in the instrumental chemistry – even with a second drummer sitting in amid the core trio led by guitarist Justin Wright – the album well fits the deep matte tones and nostalgic feel of its accompanying artwork, and is fluid in its movement from drone to push especially on “Second Movement,” which sandwiches a resonant cacophony around soundscapes that spread as far as the mind of the listener is willing to let them. Whether you want to sit and parse the execution over every its every subtle motion and waveform or put it on and go into full-brain-shutdown, America Here and Now Sessions delivers. Flat out. It delivers.

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Coltsblood, Ascending into Shimmering Darkness

coltsblood ascending into shimmering darkness

After surviving the acquisition of Candlelight Records by Spinefarm, UK doom extremists Coltsblood return with their second album, Ascending into Shimmering Darkness, and follow-up 2014’s Into the Unfathomable Abyss (review here) with 54 minutes of concrete-thick atmospheric bleakness spread across five tracks. The headfuckery isn’t quite as unremitting as it was on the debut – a blend of airy and thick guitar in the intro of the opening title-cut (also the longest inclusion; immediate points) reminds of Pallbearer – but the three-piece thrive in this more-cohesive-overall context, and their lumbering miseries remain dark and triumphant in kind. A closing duo of “Ever Decreasing Circles” and “The Final Winter” also both top 12 and 13 minutes, respectively, but the shorter second track “Mortal Wound” brings blackened tendencies to the fore and centerpiece “The Legend of Abhartach” effectively leads the way from one side to the other. Still, the most complete victory here for bassist/vocalist John McNulty, guitarist Jemma McNulty and drummer Jay Plested might be “The Final Winter,” which melds its grueling, excruciatingly slow crash to overarching keyboard drama and becomes a work of cinematic depth as well as skull-crushing wretchedness. Such ambient growth fascinates and shows marked progression from their first offering, and even if the primary impression remains one from which no light escapes, don’t be fooled: Coltsblood are growing and are all the more dangerous for that.

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Rhino, The Law of Purity

rhino the law of purity

Once they get past the aptly-titled minute-long “Intro,” Rhino keep their foot heavy on the gas for the vast majority of The Law of Purity, their Argonauta Records debut album. The 10 included tracks veer into and out of pure desert rock loyalism – “Eat My Dust” comes across as particularly post-Kyuss, perhaps melded with some of the burl of C.O.C.’s “Shake Like You” – and the throttle of “Nuclear Space,” “Nine Months,” “A. & B. Brown” and “Cock of Dog” later on come to define the impression of straightforward push that puts the riffs forward even more than earlier inclusions like the post-“Intro” title-track or the more mid-paced “Bursting Out,” which hints at psychedelia without really ever fully diving into it. Capping with the roll of “I See the Monsters,” The Law of Purity reminds at times of earlier Astrosoniq – particularly in the vocals – but finds the Sicilian five-piece crafting solid heavy rock tunes that seem more concerned with having a couple beers and a good time than changing the world or remaking the genre. Nothing wrong with that.

Rhino on Thee Facebooks

Argonauta Records website

 

Cruthu, The Angle of Eternity

cruthu the angle of eternity

As it happens, I wrote the bio and release announcement for Cruthu’s debut album, The Angle of Eternity (posted here), and I count guitarist “Postman Dan” McCormick as a personal friend, so if you’re looking for impartiality as regards the self-released six-tracker, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for primo trad doom and classic metal vibes, the Michigan-based four-piece offer touches of progressive flourish amid the shuffle of opener “Bog of Kildare,” a grueling post-“Crystal Ball” nod in “From the Sea” and a bit of ‘70s proto-metallurgy in the closing title-track, which finds vocalist Ryan Evans at his most commanding while McCormick, bassist Erik Hemingsen (Scott Lehman appears as well) and drummer Matt Fry hold together the fluid and patient groove of weighted downer metal. The sense of Cruthu as an outfit schooled in the style is palpable through the creep of “Lady in the Lake” and the post-Trouble chug of “Séance,” but they’re beginning to cast their own identity from their influences – even the penultimate interlude “Separated from the Herd” is part of it – and the dividends of that process are immediate in these tracks.

Cruthu on Thee Facebooks

Cruthu on Bandcamp

 

Spacetrucker, Launch Sequence

spacetrucker launch sequence

From the Kozik-style artwork of their cover to the blown-out vocals on opener “New Pubes” of guitarist Matt Owen, St. Louis three-piece Spacetrucker – how was there not already a band with this name? – make no bones about their intentions on their late-2016, 26-minute Launch Sequence seven-track EP. Owen, bassist Patrick Mulvaney and drummer Del Toro push into a realm of noise-infused stoner grunge loyal to the ‘90s execution of “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop” in the stops of the instrumental “Giza” even as they thicken and dirty up their tonality beyond what Kyuss laid forth. The cowbell-inclusive “Science of Us” rests easily on Mulvaney’s tone and nods toward burl without going over the top, and cuts like “Old Flower,” the penultimate roller “Trenchfoot” and the closing post-Nirvana punker blast of “Ain’t Gonna be Me” reimagine a past in which the language of heavy rock was there to explain where grunge was coming from all along. Not looking to reinvent stylistic parameters in their image at this point, Spacetrucker is nonetheless the kind of band one might’ve run into at SXSW a decade and a half ago and been made a fan for life. As it stands, the charm is not at all lost.

Spacetrucker on Thee Facebooks

Spacetrucker on Bandcamp

 

Black Habit, Black Habit

black habit self titled

Clocking in at half an hour, the self-titled debut release from viola-infused Arizona two-piece Black Habit could probably qualify as an EP or an LP. I’m inclined to consider it the latter considering the depths vocalist/guitarist/bassist Trey Edwin and violist/drummer Emily Jean plunge in the five included tracks, starting with the longest of the bunch (immediate points) in the slow-moving “Escape into Infinity” before shifting the tempo upward for “Suffer and Succumb” and digging into deep-toned sludge marked out by consistently harsh vocals. I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Habit became more melodic or at least moved into cleaner shots over time, as the doomly centerpiece “South Beach” and more fuzz-rocking “Travel Across the Ocean” seem to want to head in that direction, but it’s hard to argue with the echoing rasp that accompanies the rumble and hairy tones of finale “Lust in the Dust,” as Black Habit’s Black Habit rounds out with an especially righteous nod. An intriguing, disaffected, and raw but potential-loaded opening salvo from a two-piece discovering where their sound might take them.

Black Habit on Thee Facebooks

Black Habit on Bandcamp

 

Stone Angels, Patterns in the Ashes

stone angels patterns in the ashes

Massive. Patterns in the Ashes is a malevolent, tectonic three-song EP following up on New Zealand trio Stone Angels’ 2011 debut, Within the Witch, as well as a few shorter live/demo offerings between, and it’s an absolute beast. Launching with the seven-minute instrumental “White Light, White Noise II” – indeed the sequel to a cut from the first album – it conjures a vicious nod and bleeds one song into the next to let “Signed in Blood” further unfold the grim atmospherics underscoring and enriching all that tonal heft. Sludge is the core style, but the Christchurch three-piece’s broader intentions come through with due volume on the grueling “Signed in Blood” and when “For the Glory of None” kicks in after its sample intro, the blasts and growls that it brings push the release to new levels of extremity entirely. As a bonus, the digital edition includes all three tracks put together as one longer, 21-minute piece, so the consuming flow between them can be experienced without any interruption, as it was seemingly meant to be.

Stone Angels on Thee Facebooks

Stone Angels on Bandcamp

 

Black Willows, Samsara

the black willows samsara

If Switzerland-based resonance rockers Black Willows had only released the final two tracks, “Jewel in the Lotus” and “Morning Star,” of their late-2016 second full-length, Samsara, one would still have to call it a complete album – and not just because those songs run 15 and 25 minutes long, respectively. Throughout those extended pieces and the four shorter cuts that appear before them, a palpable meditative sensibility emerges, and Black Willows follow-up the promise of 2013’s Haze (review here) by casting an even more immersive, deeper-toned vibe in the post-Om nod of “Sin” (8:08) and the more percussive complement, “Rise” (9:28), keeping a ritualized feel prevailing but not defining. From the lead-in title-track and the spacious psych trip-out of “Mountain” that gives way to the aforementioned extended closing duo, Black Willows find their key purpose in encompassing tonality and languid grooving. Nothing is overdone, nothing loses its patience, and when they get to the linear trajectory of “Morning Star,” the sense is they’re pushing as far out as far out will go. It’s a joy to follow them on that path.

Black Willows on Thee Facebooks

Black Willows on Bandcamp

 

Lamagaia, Lamagaia

lamagaia lamagaia

Anytime you’re at all ready to quit your job and explore the recesses of your mind via the ingestion of psychedelics, rituals and meditation, Sweden’s Lamagaia would seem to stand prepared to accompany. The Gothenburg four-piece offer two extended tracks of encouragement in that direction on their self-titled 12” (released through Cardinal Fuzz and Sunrise Ocean Bender), and both “Aurora” and “Paronama Vju” carry a heady spirit of kosmiche improvisation and classically progressive willfulness. They go, go, go. Far, far, far. Vocals echo out obscure but definitely there in post-The Heads fashion, but there’s Hawkwindian thrust in the fuzzed bass and drums driving the rhythm behind the howling guitar in “Aurora,” and that only sets up the peaceful stretch that the drones and expansive spaciousness of “Paronama Vju” finds across its 18:55 as all the more of an arrival. Immersive, hypnotic, all that stuff that means gloriously psychedelic, Lamagaia’s Lamagaia offers instrumental chemistry and range for anyone willing to follow along its resonant and ultra-flowing path. Count me in. I never liked working anyway.

Lamagaia website

Cardinal Fuzz webstore

 

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Friday Full-Length: The Human Instinct, Stoned Guitar

Posted in Bootleg Theater on February 17th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

The Human Instinct, Stoned Guitar (1970)

I picked up one of the several reissues of The Human Instinct‘s Stoned Guitar years ago at a CD store in Manhattan that I’m sure by now is long gone. Can’t imagine I was the first person ever to make the purchase for this reason, but yes, it was absolutely the title that sold me on it. I mean, seriously. It’s Stoned Guitar and it’s from 1970. How on earth could you possibly go wrong?

When one encounters a record like this one, whether through a happenstance vinyl bin encounter, disc-searching, YouTube clickholing or rigorous online market search, the temptation is generally to ascribe to it some sense of prescience — as though The Human Instinct, who were founded in 1969 by drummer/vocalist Maurice Greer and made their debut that same year with Burning up Years, had some sense of the decades of THC-addled riffing that would follow, and because of that, to position their work as a lost classic and some kind of forgotten founding document of a musical movement still evolving today. That’s fun if you happen to be the person writing the marketing copy, but the truth, as usual, is more complex. Stoned Guitar, with its problematic-in-hindsight blues rocking opener single “Black Sally” (a cover of the Aussie band Mecca) the Mountain-esque cowbell and mega-riff that start “Midnight Sun,” the wonderfully psych-jammed “Jugg-a-Jug Song,” and the faked-live finale take on Rory Gallagher’s “Railway and Gun,” was released on the private press label Pye Records. It uncautiously straddled the line between blues and acid rock, and the looseness of its swing along with Greer‘s crisp vocals, Billy “TK” Te Kahika‘s scorch-prone guitar and the bass work of Larry Waide offered no shortage of charm. I don’t know if it’s the lost ark of stoner jamming, but it most definitely lived up to its name, and that in itself is a landmark achievement.

As with much of the heavy rock of the day, which now we’d probably fairly call “proto-something-or-other” though it was certainly breaking new ground at the time, one can hear the inflections of Jimi HendrixBlue Cheer and the like, but Billy TK‘s leads, layered and swirling on “Jugg-a-Jug Song” and occupying a noise-laden soundscape on the title-track, are a beast unto themselves. Whether he’s deep-diving into a funky rhythm on “Stoned Guitar” or strumming out acoustic on “Tomorrow” (another cover, of John Kongos), the guitar is a constant presence that proves worthy of the focus it gets. That’s not to take away from Waide, without whom the blues stomp of “Black Sally” would fall utterly flat, or from Greer himself, who played (and still plays, by all accounts) his drums in a standing position so as to better lead the band as its singer. They probably could’ve called the album Stoned Everything and gotten by, but they didn’t. It’s Stoned Guitar, and sure enough, the guitar is front and center for much of it. Even as Derek Neville adds baritone sax to “Midnight Sun,” Billy TK is just waiting in the wings to answer him back with yet another searing, soaring, “right on”-earning solo. And indeed, right on. I’m not sure there’s any other way to respond to the jam that ensues in that song, improvised-sounding as it is and peppered with falsetto late by Greer as he and Te Kahika and Waide and Neville seem to be having two ongoing musical conversations just as the track goes into its fade. It’s one of many moments of righteousness to be had throughout Stoned Guitar, which, again, isn’t necessarily a record that changed the world around it, but for sure still has something to offer its audience 47 years later. Maybe more now than it did when it was first released.

Billy TK stuck around for one more record, 1971’s Pins in It, and then left the band, which Greer refocused on a less heavy-minded aesthetic with a new lineup. A couple more albums followed, more lineup changes, and so on, and eventually they fizzled out as so many did and do. It wouldn’t be until 2001 that The Human Instinct would release Peg Leg, which was originally recorded in 1975, and which Greer supported through periodic live performances. A new The Human Instinct studio album, with Greer, bassist Tony Baird and guitarists Phil Pritchard and Joel Haines, followed in 2010 called Midnight Sun, and continues to be available on a somewhat limited basis. Among other guests? You guessed it: Billy TK. It was a collaboration well worthy of a revisit, which Stoned Guitar only continues to prove.

As always, I hope you enjoy.

If you’ll indulge a bit of scene-setting: As I write this, it’s a little before six in the morning. I took the day off from work and have been up since about 4:30AM. The alarm was set, as it has been this week, for 4:45. I rolled out of bed after laying there for a couple minutes with The Patient Mrs., who’s still asleep. Came downstairs, turned on the coffee pot with the Burundi Bourbon that I ground before going to bed last night ready to roll, went back up to the second floor, brushed teeth, showered, etc. Now I’m at the kitchen table, which I just cleaned off. In the basement, the first of several loads of laundry for the day is in progress. The dishes, I did last night. It’s still dark out, but when the sun comes up, I’ll take out the recycling.

I’ve got my second cup of coffee, my bluetooth speaker playing the new Alunah, and an iced tea on the table. The Little Dog Dio is asleep in her kitchen bed — as opposed to her living room pillow or her actual preferred spot, which is stage right on the couch — and past her, I can see out the sliding door it’s still dark out, the moon just more than halfway full. In a while the sun will come up. I’ve got a couple more posts that came in late for this morning that I need to put together still and a list of chores I want to do today, principal among them are grocery shopping and the aforementioned laundry. I hope to accomplish everything as early as possible, maybe start reading that new George Saunders novel, and spend as much time relaxing this afternoon with The Patient Mrs. as I can. Her schedule means she’s off on most Fridays apart from the odd work meeting. I don’t think she has one today, so all the better.

This — all of it — is essentially what I want my life to be. I’ll wrap the day’s writing shortly, which is two news posts as if there weren’t already enough, and get everything up throughout the early part of the day, then roast macadamia nuts and make myself a protein shake for lunch. Dinner is a ham sandwich on low-carb bread (an incredible 1 net g per two thin slices, and it’s pretty good) with provolone and pesto, some fake potato chips on the side. I’m already looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great day, and I can see by just the first hints of light on the small deck out back that it’s already getting underway. Couldn’t be more stoked.

It was a hard week. The last couple have been difficult, and I’ve found myself increasingly anxious along the way. Yesterday at the office I tried to abate this by making lists. I made the grocery list I’ll take shopping today, the to-do list cataloging what I wanted to do this morning/afternoon, a CVS list (forgot Band-Aids, and they didn’t have my preferred kind of mints), and basically planned out my meals through the end of the month. I don’t know if it helped, but at least it took a little time out of my day. I’d been counting the minutes until yesterday was over and today could start.

There’s a lot to do, but I’m much happier in my current state. It’s warm, music’s on, I’m not pounding my coffee to get out the door, and in a little while, The Patient Mrs. will get up and sit across this table from me with her wonderful, radiant face and we’ll have breakfast together — her, yogurt or eggs or some such; me, coffee with protein powder in it. Then I’ll switch over the laundry, handle that recycling and get back to writing. Yes. That’s what feels best. I’m fortunate to be able to take the day when I need it. Today, I need it.

Here’s what’s doing for next week. People are starting to come out of the woodwork with new albums for March, April, May, and tours as well, so a lot of it is news again, as was the case this week and certainly today, which turned into an eight-post day kind of out of nowhere. All subject to change, of course:

Mon.: Radio adds, hopefully a quick Q&A with Dave Sherman about the new Earthride lineup.
Tue.: Review and track premiere for the new Atavismo, which rules. News on Brown Acid, the new Isis live record, etc.
Wed.: Review and track premiere for the new Kingnomad, which rules.
Thu.: Full album stream of the new Void Cruiser, which I’m still getting a handle on. Psych grunge makes for a fascinating blend.
Fri.: Overdue review of the Kandodo McBain record from last year. There’s a story behind the delay, but I’ll tell it maybe in the photo caption.

I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Mine’s just getting rolling right now and I hope to relish every second of it.

Please check out the forum and the radio stream.

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The Obelisk Presents: THE TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2016

Posted in Features on December 20th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

the obelisk top 30

Please note: This post is not culled in any way from the Year-End Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2016 to that, please do.

I say this every year: These are my picks. If you’re unfamiliar with this site, or you don’t come here that often, or if you do and just normally don’t give a crap — all of which is cool — you should know it’s all run by one person. One human being. Me. My name is JJ, and this is a list of what I think are the best albums that were released in 2016.

Since before 2016 began, I’ve kept a running list of releases. My criteria for what gets included in this list is largely unchanged — it’s a balance between what I feel are important records on the level of what they achieve, what I listened to most, what held some other personal appeal, and what I think did the best job of meeting the goals it set for itself. Pretty vague, right? That’s the idea.

The nature of worldwide heavy has become so broad that to encompass it all under some universal standard is laughable. Judging psychedelia, garage rock, heavy psych, doom, sludge and so on by the same measure makes no sense, and as genres continue to splinter and remake themselves as we’ve seen them doing all year and over the last several years, one must be malleable in one’s own taste. We’ve seen a new generation of heavy rock bands emerge in the last three-plus years. It’s been amazing, and there are a few pivotal second and third records that came out in 2016 to affirm that movement underway. Look for it to continue into 2017 and beyond.

This year more than any other seemed to want to bring the different sides together. A laudable goal. Thick riffing marked with flourish of psychedelia. Spacious doom bred against folk impulses. There’s been experimentation around melds that have led to considerable triumphs, and it just doesn’t seem to me that rigid standards can apply. It’s why I don’t grade reviews and never did.

Sound is evolving now as it always has been and as it will keep doing, but like any year, 2016 had a full share of landmarks to offer as a part of that process. As universal development hopefully remains ongoing, it’s only right that we celebrate the accomplishments helping to push it along its winding and sometimes divergent-seeming paths.

I have no doubt you know what I mean. Let’s get to the list:

30. Talmud Beach, Chief

talmud beach chief

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed Feb. 10.

Seems only fair to start with a record I couldn’t put down. Finnish trio Talmud Beach‘s second album and Svart debut, Chief, hit on just the right blend of laid back, semi-acoustic groove-blues, psychedelia and classic progressive folk rock, but with the exception of its sprawling dreamscape title-track (a welcome arrival at the finale), it also kept the songwriting simple, resulting in a natural, pastoral feel that only highlighted their melodic range in songs like “Mountain Man” and “Snow Snow Snow.” I think it flew under a lot of people’s radar, but I’ve kept going back to it over the course of the year and I see no reason to stop.

29. Comet Control, Center of the Maze

comet control center of the maze

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed June 22.

Space is still the place. I’ve already highlighted closer “Artificial Light” from Comet Control‘s sophomore LP, Center of the Maze as my favorite song of 2016, so I’ll spare you the longwinded treatise on its languid cosmic glories — this time — but consider this a reminder that that song was by no means the limit of what the eight-track release had to offer in terms of breadth. From the opening push of “Dig out Your Head” to the dream-drift of “Sick in Space,” it unfolded tonal presence and a melodic depth that engaged a gorgeous, multifaceted sonic wash as it moved onward toward that landmark conclusion.

28. Droids Attack, Sci-Fi or Die

droids attack sci-fi or die

Self-released. Reviewed Feb. 17.

There was not a level on which Madison, Wisconsin’s Droids Attack didn’t make it clear they were going all-out, all-in on Sci-Fi or Die. Even the title speaks to the stakes involved. And sure enough, the trio executed their fourth album with a sense of urgency and professionalism in songcraft, production, artwork (discussed here) and nuance of presentation that managed to make even a song called “Clawhammer Suicide” a classy affair. As guitarist/vocalist Brad Van said on the hidden title-track, “Death to false stoner thrash.” Droids Attack brought that ethic and more to life across the entire record.

27. Beelzefuzz, The Righteous Bloom

beelzefuzz the righteous bloom

Released by Restricted Release and The Church Within. Reviewed Aug. 2.

A winding road brought Beelzefuzz around to following up their 2013 self-titled debut (review here), and as The Righteous Bloom brought guitarist/vocalist Dana Ortt and drummer Darin McCloskey together with bassist Bert Hall and lead guitarist Greg Diener, it found their songwriting more expansive, more progressive and dug further into their own particular oddball sense of grandeur. I’ve said on multiple occasions that no one out there is doing what Beelzefuzz are doing and that continues to be true. Even as a first offering from a new lineup of the band, The Righteous Bloom took bold and exciting forward steps.

26. Foghound, The World Unseen

foghound the world unseen

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed July 6.

Down to business. Immediately. Not a moment to spare. Taking part in what can only be considered a landmark year for Ripple Music, Baltimore’s Foghound issued The World Unseen as an answer to their 2013 debut, Quick, Dirty and High (review here), and upped their game across the board. From the intensity in the hooks of “Message in the Sky” and Rockin’ and Rollin'” to the quiet interlude of “Bridge of Stonebows” and the mid-paced heavy rock nod of “Never Return,” they made a strong case for themselves among their label’s foremost acts and found individualism in the growth of their songwriting. It was a kick in the ass you weren’t going to forget.

25a. Egypt, Endless Flight

egypt endless flight

Released by Doomentia Records. Reviewed Dec. 11, 2015.

Put out by the band digitally in Dec. 2015 and issued on vinyl in 2016, Egypt‘s second LP, Endless Flight may be somewhat debatable in terms of when it actually landed (hence “25a.,” above), but the quality of the six-tracker more than warrants inclusion anyway. Rolling dense, massively-fuzzed groove, its nine-minute opening title-track set the course for the Fargo, North Dakota, three-piece, and they only grew the heavy revelry from there, as heard on the penultimate “Black Words,” which seemed to be chewing on rocks even as it played back and forth in tempo, build and push. The converted never had it so good.

25. 1000mods, Repeated Exposure To…

1000mods repeated exposure to

Released by Ouga Booga and the Mighty Oug Recordings. Reviewed Sept. 20.

There seems to be no stopping the Chiliomodi-based 1000mods, who with their third album have stepped to the forefront of Greece’s populous and vibrant heavy rock underground. Progressed well beyond where even 2014’s impressive Vultures (review here) found them, they seemed to hit a stride with Repeated Exposure To… thanks in part to road time and the ability to bring that energy directly into songs like the eight-minute roller “Loose” and the sizable crashes of “Groundhog Day.” Momentum working in their favor could be heard front-to-back from “Above 179” to “Into the Spell,” moving them toward something ever-more crucial and marking a considerable achievement along that path. 2017 might be a good time for them to test the waters with initial US shows.

24. Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy

black rainbows stellar prophecy

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed April 11.

Quick turnaround from Roman heavy psych magnate Gabriele Fiori (guitar/vocals) and company, but though it hit just about 13 months after their fourth full-length, Hawkdope (review here), Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy wholly succeeded in making an impact of its own, cuts like the oozing, organ-laced “Woman” and 11-minute jam-out triumph “Golden Widow” showcasing an approach in a continuous state of refinement that seems to get rawer as it goes, shifting like a rogue planetoid toward some maddening cosmic realization. How something can seem both so frenetic and so blissful is still a mystery, and perhaps that’s part of what makes Stellar Prophecy resonate as it does, but either way, Black Rainbows brought together some of the year’s most efficient psychedelic immersion.

23. Borracho, Atacama

borracho atacama

Released by Kozmik Artifactz. Reviewed Nov. 14.

Borracho don’t seem to release an album until they have something to say. That was to their credit on Atacama, their third LP and label debut for Kozmik Artifactz debut. Also their second collection issued as a trio behind 2013’s Oculus (review here), it distinguished itself from its predecessor in its sense of overarching flow, shifting between the ahead-thrust of “Gold from Sand” into the 10-minute sample-laden jam “Overload” to start out with such ease that the listener had little choice but to follow along. With an expanded scope on “Drifted away from the Sun” and the lightly-strummed memento mori “Flower,” Borracho found new avenues of expression to complement their well established dense, heavy riffing, and took obvious care in crafting their most realized LP yet.

22. The Golden Grass, Coming Back Again

the golden grass coming back again

Released by Listenable Records. Reviewed April 26.

Nothing Brooklyn’s The Golden Grass does feels like happenstance, and though their classic-styled boogie is imbued with a vibrant, friendly positive energy, there’s an underlying meticulousness in their arrangements and in their songwriting that came further into focus on Coming Back Again, their sophomore release 2014’s self-titled debut (review here). A more progressive take showed itself in “Reflections” and “Down the Line,” and taken in combination with the bookends “Get it Together” and “See it Through,” the three-piece stood on ground that was even more their own than on the first record, striking a careful balance between the willful exploration of new elements and the outright need for tracks to directly engage their listeners with catchy hooks and upbeat vibes. They did it. Expect continued growth.

21. Curse the Son, Isolator

curse the son isolator

Released by Snake Charmer Coalition and The Company Records. Reviewed March 1.

For something so awash in fuzz, so nodding in its rhythms, so let’s-push-the-vocals-back-under-this-huge-awesome-fucking-riff, Curse the Son‘s Isolator was also remarkably clearheaded in its purposes. With the added vocal harmonies of “Callous Unemotional Traits,” the far-off spaces of “Hull Crush Depth” and the stoner metal despair of “Aislamiento,” the Connecticut three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Ron Vanacore, capital-‘d’ Drummer Michael Petrucci and newcomer bassist Brendan Keefe drew a direct, intentional line to sometimes-grueling (hello, “Sleepwalker Wakes”) weighted tonality and found justification for their largesse in its own being. Like 2012’s Psychache (review here), I expect to be returning to Isolator over a longer term than this single year of release.

20. Neurosis, Fires Within Fires

neurosis fires within fires

Released by Neurot Recordings. Reviewed Sept. 21.

I feel like I need to explain myself here. Make no mistake, NeurosisFires Within Fires is among the year’s most accomplished offerings. There’s just about no way it wouldn’t be. So why not top 10? Top five? It’s a question of timing. With the long-running post-metal progenitors, it’s always a longer digestion period. It was about two years before 2012’s Honor Found in Decay (review here) really sunk in, and I expect Fires Within Fires will work similarly over the greater term. Maybe a little guilt on my part for the disparity between its quality and its placement, but rest assured, Neurosis remain among the most imperative bands walking the earth, and as they took on the full brunt of 30 years of unmitigated progression through Fires Within Fires, they were no less brazen in pushing themselves creatively than they’ve ever been.

19. Conan, Revengeance

conan revengeance

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Jan. 19.

Though the narrative of Conan has remained largely unchanged since their inception — hack, slash, kill, riff — and they still bask in nigh-on-unmatched tonal slaughter, their third full-length brings a few key developments. Perhaps most notable from opener “Throne of Fire” onward is the vocal interplay between guitarist/founder Jon Davis and bassist/longtime-engineer Chris Fielding, who joined after 2014’s Blood Eagle (review here). Adding Fielding‘s deeper growls allowed Davis to subtly move into a cleaner shout, and the emergent dynamic between them made Revengeance a decidedly expanded affair compared to Conan‘s past work. Adding drummer Rich Lewis to the mix was no minor shift either, and as much as Conan had already established their sheer dominance, they also sounded refreshed and set themselves up to keep growing.

18. Baby Woodrose, Freedom

baby woodrose freedom

Released by Bad Afro Records. Reviewed Aug. 18.

Some records just feel like gifts, and though many of its lyrical positions were cynical — “Reality,” “21st Century Slave,” “Mind Control Machine,” “Red the Sign Post,” etc. — Freedom marked the 15th anniversary of Danish garage-psych rockers Baby Woodrose with dripping lysergic aplomb, reminding some four years after their last LP, 2012’s Third Eye Surgery (review here), that bandleader Lorenzo Woodrose is unparalleled when it comes to manifesting his take on the psychedelic victories of 13th Floor Elevators and classic-era Hawkwind — firmly at home levitating on the edge of time. Its swirl and underlying foundation of songwriting, its Richie Havens cover title-track, and its sprawling interstellar “Termination” were like a welcome check-in from another dimension, and I only hope it’s not four years before Woodrose sends the next signal. Earth needs this band.

17. Geezer, Geezer

geezer geezer

Released by Ripple Music and STB Records. Reviewed Nov. 10.

I’m not going to discount the shuffle of “Sunday Speed Demon” or sleeze of “Sunday Speed Demon,” but where Geezer‘s self-titled third full-length really showed how far the New York heavy blues-psych trio have come was in its extended midsection jams, “Sun Gods,” “Bi-Polar Vortex” and “Dust,” each of which showed a distinct approach while feeding into an engaging flow between them, offering a blend of trailmarker hooks as they drifted into realms of organic chemistry previously uncharted by the band. The slow-motion swing of “Hangnail Crisis,” raucous push of “Superjam Maximus” and concluding bounce of “Stoney Pony” brought them back down to earth to finish out with a symmetry to the album’s opening, but Geezer kept a collective hand on the controls the whole voyage and when they landed, it was an arrival indeed, and very much what their two previous records were building toward.

16. EYE, Vision and the Ageless Light

eye vision and the ageless light

Released by The Laser’s Edge. Reviewed Nov. 17.

Beautifully experimental with its 27-minute finisher “As Sure as the Sun,” EYE‘s Vision and the Ageless Light seemed throughout its whole 46-minute run to be executing a cohesive vision in its synth-soaked progressive textures. Between the intro “Book of the Dead” and the subsequent “Kill the Slavemaster,” “Searching,” “Dweller of the Twilight Void” and the already-noted closer, each piece had something different to offer that added to the full impact of the whole, and with guitarist Jon Finely and bassist Michael Sliclen joining founding drummer/vocalist Brandon Smith and synth/Mellotron/Moog-ist Lisa Bella Donna (also vocals and acoustic guitar), EYE added to the scope of 2013’s Second Sight (review here) and found a place for themselves where prog complexity didn’t need to come at the expense of memorable songwriting and spaced-out vibes. An absolute joy, front to back.

15. Fatso Jetson, Idle Hands

fatso jetson idle hands

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed Oct. 3.

Even Fatso Jetson themselves would probably have to admit that six years — even a six years that saw several splits, singles, etc. — was too long between albums. Fortunately, Idle Hands saw the desert rock forebears in top form as regards their quirk-fueled songwriting, angular approach to punk and inimitable groove. Following 2010’s Archaic Volumes (review here) was no easy task, but with additional depth to the material from the contributions of guitarist Dino von Lalli — son of founding guitarist/vocalist Mario Lalli and nephew of founding bassist Larry Lalli — guest spots from his sister Olive Lalli as well as Sean Wheeler (the latter moves second cut “Portuguese Dream” into high-echelon strangeness) and the ever-propulsive drumming of Tony Tornay, Fatso Jetson were both all over the place and right at the core of where they most ought to be sonically. At 56 minutes, it hardly seemed long enough.

14. Hexvessel, When We are Death

hexvessel when we are death

Released by Century Media. Reviewed Feb. 5.

Each song was like a different persona the band adopted momentarily, whether it was the Bowie-goes-proto-goth-prog of organ-ic opener “Transparent Eyeball” or the grim pastoralia of “Mirror Boy” and the condemnations/proclamations of “Drugged up on the Universe,” but wherever Hexvessel went on their third full-length and Century Media debut, When We are Death, that unifying theme went with them. Death. It was everywhere in the Finland-based genre-benders’ deeply varied approach, though its presence made their material in no way off-putting, and in the case of cuts like “Cosmic Truth” or the later “Mushroom Spirit Doors,” not even dark, and as it drew the tracks together despite working in different sounds and style, it became apparent that When We are Death worked because of a universal quality in songwriting and presentation allowing for such drastic shifts without any risk of losing the audience.

13. Zun, Burial Sunrise

zun burial sunrise

Released by Small Stone Records. Reviewed Feb. 16.

Yawning Man guitarist Gary Arce — a key figure in the development of desert rock and a player of unmatched tone, period — had quite a year, between Zun‘s Burial Sunrise, his main outfit and his collaboration with Fatso Jetson vs. HifiKlub, but it was the dreamscape drift of songs like “Come Through the Water” and “All that You Say I Am” as well as the subtle hooks of “Into the Wasteland” and “All for Nothing” that, for me, made this the highlight. Sure, bringing in vocalists Sera Timms (Ides of Gemini, Black Mare) and John Garcia (ex-Kyuss, Slo Burn, Vista Chino, etc.) and having them swap back and forth between the tracks didn’t hurt either, but the wash of ethereal presence in Arce‘s guitar was an excellent showcase for his patience and improvisational sensibilities, and the spaces Burial Sunrise covered seemed to have an infinite horizon all their own. Will hope for a follow-up, will hope Garcia and Timms return, and will hope for a duet.

12. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree

elephant tree elephant tree

Released by Magnetic Eye Records. Reviewed Jan. 29.

One had reasonably high expectations for the debut full-length from London’s Elephant Tree after their 2014 EP Theia (review here) so deftly blended spacious, sitar-laced heavy psychedelic rock with more visceral sludge impulses — a difficult mix to pull off — but I think it would’ve been impossible to see the quality of this self-titled outing coming in any substantive way. Gone were the screams, in was a depth of tone and nigh-on-perfect tempo — see “Dawn” and “Aphotic Blues,” as well as the acoustic “Circles” between them — and where some first albums have a kind of tentative, feeling-it-out vibe, guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley (interview here), bassist/vocalist Peter Holland, drummer Sam Hart and sitarist/vocalist/engineer Riley MacIntyre took utter command of the proceedings. They won’t have the element of surprise working for them next time, but as Elephant Tree made perfectly clear in its biggest surprise of all, neither do they need it.

11. Mos Generator, Abyssinia

mos generator abyssinia

Released by Listenable Records. Reviewed July 12.

If you were to ask me to summarize in one word the last four-plus years of Mos Generator‘s tenure, since their reactivation with 2012’s Nomads (review here) and the subsequent lineup changes and hard-touring that followed 2014’s Electric Mountain Majesty (review here), I’d say “go.” I might say it three times: Go-go-go. One of three LP-ish offerings out this year, the studio album Abyssinia embodied this ethic as it started with immediate momentum on “Strangest Times” and “You’ve Got a Right” and seemed to push itself into new ground as it went. Guitarist/vocalist/founder Tony Reed brought heavy boogie to bear at a frenetic clip, but Abyssinia offset its early mania with later progressive stylization on “There’s No Return from Nowhere,” “Time and Other Thieves” and harmonized closer “Outlander,” so that in addition to representing their furious creativity, it also brought them to places they’ve never been before in sound.

10. Slomatics, Future Echo Returns

slomatics future echo returns

Released by Black Bow Records. Reviewed June 29.

In some ways, Future Echo Returns was simply picking up where Belfast’s Slomatics left off with 2014’s Estron (review here), as heard on the riff of lead-in track “Estronomicon,” but as the third in a purported trilogy following that record and 2012’s A Hocht, it also brought the tonecrushing three-piece to Skyhammer Studio to work with producer Chris Fielding (Conan) and presented a linear storyline that, while rife with standout moments in cuts like “Electric Breath,” the ambient “Ritual Beginnings” and ultra-catchy “Supernothing,” found a genuine sense of resolution in the finale “Into the Eternal” that spoke to the scope the entire work was meant to represent — not just itself, but an entirety spanning three albums. Not a minor feat, but what also made Future Echo Returns so resonant was how well the material stood on its own, so that even without the narrative context, it was immersive, hypnotic and unbridled in its heft.

9. Wo Fat, Midnight Cometh

wo fat midnight cometh

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed April 21.

After two landmarks issued by Small Stone in 2014’s The Conjuring (review here) and 2012’s The Black Code (reviews here and here), Texas forerunners of riff Wo Fat gave a concise rundown of their appeal in the six-track Ripple debut and sixth LP overall, Midnight Cometh. Their ongoing development as found them bringing together a two-sided personality of memorable songs and open, fluid jams, and cuts like “There’s Something Sinister in the Wind,” “Of Smoke and Fog,” “Three Minutes to Midnight” and “Nightcomer” emphasized the next stage of this process, while the shuffling “Riffborn” and swaggering blues rock of “La Dilleme de Detenu” gave listeners a chance to touch ground every now and again. Over the last two-plus years, Wo Fat have become a point of influence for other, particularly American, acts — see labelmates Geezer — and Midnight Cometh assured that will be the case going forward too; a status well-earned.

8. King Buffalo, Orion

king buffalo orion

Released by Stickman Records. Reviewed July 29.

Offered up this summer as a limited self-release and picked up by no less than Stickman Records (Motorpsycho, Elder), Orion might be the most molten inclusion on this list. It’s also my pick for 2016 Debut of the Year, and to hear cuts like “She Sleeps on a Vine,” “Kerosene,” the sprawling closer “Drinking from the River Rising,” or even just to take the whole record front-to-back, which was clearly how the band intended it be experienced, there’s just about no competition in that regard that stands up. The Rochester, NY, three-piece showed marked promise on their 2013 demo (review here) and 2015 split with Lé Betre (review here), but the listenability of Orion — which earned every single one of its repeat visits — made it a triumph on a different level entirely, and distinguished King Buffalo as a formidable presence in the sphere of US heavy psychedelia, fostering a sound no less soulful for its outward cosmic reach and to-be-measured-in-lightyears scale of potential.

7. Wight, Love is Not Only What You Know

wight love is not only what you know

Released by Fat and Holy Records, Kozmik Artifactz, Import Export Music and SPV. Reviewed Sept. 7.

German outfit Wight answered significant anticipation on their third album, Love is Not Only What You Know, some four years after 2012’s Through the Woods into Deep Water (review here) and undertook a significant evolution in sound. A transition from a trio to a four-piece and adding a strong current of funk to their heavy psych groove and boogie resulted in cuts like “The Muse and the Mule,” the jammed-out “Kelele” and “The Love for Life Leads to Reincarnation,” which were as danceable as they were nod-ready, and when complemented by shorter classic rockers like “Helicopter Mama” and “I Wanna Know What You Feel” (still plenty funky) and the Eastern-tinged interlude “Three Quarters,” gave Love is Not Only What You Know scope to match its ass-shaking encouragement. It was a spirit unto itself among 2016 releases, but ultimately, the key to understanding the record was right there in the title: It was all about love, and wherever Wight went in a given track, they never lost sight of that.

6. Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow

greenleaf rise above the meadow

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Feb. 18.

A decade and a half after 2001’s Revolution Rock (discussed here), Sweden’s Greenleaf most embodied that ethic with Rise Above the Meadow, their sixth long-player and Napalm Records debut. 2014’s Trails and Passes (review here) represented the key step of founding guitarist Tommi Holappa (interview here) bringing vocalist Arvid Johnsson into the lineup, but Rise Above the Meadow built exponentially on what that album achieved, bolstered by work as a touring band and a revitalized songwriting process heard in “Howl,” “A Million Fireflies,” “You’re Gonna be My Ruin,” the stomping “Golden Throne” and “Tyrants Tongue,” among others. I refuse to discount the quality of Trails and Passes, 2012’s Nest of Vipers (review here) or 2007’s landmark Agents of Ahriman (review here), but as Greenleaf shifted toward a style more reminiscent of Holappa‘s later output with Dozer, they also seemed to stake their claim on the forefront of European heavy rock and roll, which was just waiting for them to do so.

5. Brant Bjork, Tao of the Devil

brant bjork tao of the devil

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Sept. 15.

Perhaps the most believable lyric of 2016 was the opening line of leadoff cut “The Gree Heen” from Brant Bjork‘s Tao of the Devil: “I got all that I need. I got the gree-heen.” From the prominent pot leaf on the cover to that single clause — which set the tone for that song’s mega-nod as much as everything that followed in the boogie of “Humble Pie” and “Stackt,” the so-laid-back-it’s-almost-unconscious title-track and the longer-form explorations of “Dave’s War” and the wah’ed-out “Evening Jam” — the inimitable Bjork seems to have embraced the role of stoner guru and the Godfather of Desert Rock. Tao of the Devil was his second release through Napalm behind 2014’s Black Power Flower (review here), which introduced the Low Desert Punk Band, and far from hanging its hat on the man’s historical accomplishments from his days in KyussFu ManchuCheVista Chino, etc., the 50-minute eight-tracker came fueled by the soul most typified in Bjork‘s solo catalog, which it’s increasingly easy to argue is his greatest contribution to the desert aesthetic. Definitely in his wheelhouse, but what a wheelhouse.

4. Asteroid, III

asteroid iii

Released by Fuzzorama Records. Reviewed Oct. 21.

What a relief it was to have Asteroid back, and what a relief it was to have III arrive some six years after II (review here) and find the Örebro, Sweden, trio’s certified-organic chemistry undulled by that long stretch. The songs — “Pale Moon,” “Last Days,” “Til Dawn,” “Wolf and Snake,” “Silver and Gold,” “Them Calling,” “Mr. Strange” — there wasn’t a miss in the bunch, and in addition to the reignited craftsmanship, III made clear a progression as players and the intent to move forward from guitarist/vocalist Robin Hirse, bassist/vocalist Johannes Nilsson and drummer Elvis Campbell (since replaced by Jimmi Kolscheen), so that the material didn’t just let listeners know Asteroid was a band again after having unceremoniously faded out for a half-decade, but gave a signal that perhaps they were just getting started. One can only hope that turns out to be the case, but either way, III felt like a reward dolled out to their fanbase after a long absent stretch, and one that, like II and their 2007 self-titled debut (discussed here) before it, will reverberate its echoes for years to come. Hands down 2016’s most welcome return.

3. Gozu, Revival

gozu revival

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed May 19.

Though it would carry the context of its scorching opener “Nature Boy” with it for the duration and, accordingly, hit with a more intense feel than its 2013 predecessor, The Fury of a Patient Man (review here), Gozu‘s fourth album overall and Ripple label debut was a kick in the ass on more than just that one level. It found the Boston foursome with the finally-solidified lineup of vocalist/guitarist Marc Gaffney, guitarist Doug Sherman, bassist Joe Grotto and drummer Mike Hubbard, and while one could argue they still wound up under the banner of a heavy rock band, that became happenstance to the songs themselves. That is, even more than The Fury of a Patient Man or 2010’s Locust Season (review here), Gozu came across as writing not to style, but to their own impulses, as demonstrated in “Big Casino,” the echoing soul of “Tin Chicken” and shuffle-thrust of “Oldie,” and as they moved beyond their initial swath of influence into this individualized sonic persona, they reaped the benefits of the locked-in lineup and a process of craft that never sounded so purposeful. Revival was indeed typified by its vitality, but it was also the sound of a band maturing as a unit, becoming who they were meant to be, and there is almost nothing more exciting than that for a single album to represent. Plus, it had a song called “By Mennen,” and, you know, references.

2. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul)

mars red sky apex iii praise for the burning soul

Released by Listenable Records. Reviewed Feb. 24.

It was unreasonable to expect the third full-length from Bordeaux, France, trio Mars Red Sky to surpass 2014’s Stranded in Arcadia (review here) and the progressive crux that album brought to the warm tones and sweet melodicism of their 2011 self-titled debut (review here), but Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) reinforced the elements that worked so well on previous outings while pushing inarguably onto what the band seemed to know was “Alien Ground” if the title of their intro was anything to go by. More over, it did so with a natural fluidity and poise that were as striking as they were encompassing in sound. Tying to earlier 2016’s Providence EP (review here) in concept and execution through that intro and the title-track following it, Apex III presented the to-date pinnacle of Mars Red Sky‘s growth in songs like “The Whinery,” “Mindreader,” the tear-inducing “Under the Hood,” the swing-happy “Friendly Fire,” the willful atmospheric crash of closer “Prodigal Sun” — each one a crucial advancing step from the trio of guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Mathieu “Matgaz” Gazeau — and brilliantly fed them one into the other, so that in addition to the standout impressions of each, there developed a personality to the whole span of the album; a world of Mars Red Sky‘s own creation, where they dwelt for what seemed too short a time before returning to earth and on from here to who knows where next.

1. SubRosa, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages

subrosa for this we fought the battle of ages

Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed Aug. 26.

Most of all, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages was fearless. For their fourth album, Salt Lake City’s SubRosa adapted themes from 1924’s We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which laid out a futuristic dystopia wherein all identity is subsumed to the state and even love is outlawed when not properly sanctioned. This framework, obscure if influential, gave guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton, violinist/backing vocalist Kim Pack, bassist/vocalist Levi Hanna, drummer/engineer Andy Patterson (formerly of Iota, among others), and a range of other contributors, a space in which to explore gender and LGBT issues across the six included tracks, and from the opening build and crush of the chorus to “Despair is a Siren” through the depiction of privilege in “Wound of the Warden,” the 97-second Italian-language ballad “Il Cappio” (translated: “the noose”) and into the gut-wrenching finale of “Troubled Cells,” their musical accomplishment was no less stunning than lyrics like, “Isn’t it good to be acquainted with darkness?/To caress it gently/To slit its throat,” from “Black Majesty.” Tense in its quiet stretches, harmonized vocally, given orchestral presence through its use of strings, flute, French horn, and so on, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages worked fluidly in what for most acts would be a contradictory modus of careful, meticulous arrangements and raw, emotional realism. No matter how deep it dove — and by the time identity was being erased and the state was taking control of the body on “Killing Rapture,” it was diving pretty deep — SubRosa never lost their sense of poise, so that the defiance in the last movement of “Troubled Cells” in which Heaven itself is rejected with the clearest of justifications, “Paradise is a lie if you’re not by my side,” the band seemed to stand as straight and tall as their multi-tiered righteousness would warrant. But even if one took For this We Fought the Battle of Ages with politics aside, its achievement in marrying post-metallic structures, gothic texture and progressive atmospherics was on a plane of its own making, operating under its own rules and in its own definitive space. Albums like it do not happen every year, and forward motion for genre as a whole is rarely so visible as it was in this special offering, which seems only fair to regard as a landmark for the band and anyone whose ears and hearts it touched.

The Next 20

Like any good Top 30, mine goes to 50. Here is the next batch:

31. Blaak Heat, Shifting Mirrors
32. Truckfighters, V
33. West, Space & Love, Vol. II
34. Seedy Jeezus with Isaiah Mitchell, Tranquonauts
35. Yawning Man, Historical Graffiti
36. Causa Sui, Return to Sky
37. Vokonis, Olde One Ascending
38. Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Phantomonium
39. The Wounded Kings, Visions in Bone
40. It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Our Birth is but a Sleep and a Forgetting
41. Beastwars, The Death of all Things
42. Naxatras, II
43. Holy Grove, Holy Grove
44. Worshipper, Shadow Hymns
45. Wretch, Wretch
46. Colour Haze, Live Vol. I: Europa Tournee 2015
47. Zaum, Eidolon
48. Bellringer, Jettison
49. Young Hunter, Young Hunter
50. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Y Proffwyd Dwyll

From the kinetic desert artistry of Blaak Heat to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard’s ethereal synth-laden doom, there are more than a few essentials here. I’ve never before done a year-end list that had so many releases on it, but my motivation in doing so this time around couldn’t have been simpler: They were simply too good and had too much to offer to leave out. It would’ve been an oversight to do so.

Honorable Mentions

Even a Top 50 fails to grasp the full scope of what 2016 brought about musically, so here are even more, alphabetically:

Ancient Warlocks, II
Black Moon Circle, Sea of Clouds
Sergio Ch., Aurora
Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge
Mondo Drag, The Occultation of Light
Øresund Space Collective, Visions Of…
-(16)-, Lifespan of a Moth
Spidergawd, III
The Well, Pagan Science
Wovenhand, Star Treatment

And if that’s still not enough, here are 60-plus more names who shouldn’t be left out of the discussion, also alphabetically:

Akris, Atala, Atomikylä, Backwoods Payback, Beastmaker, BigPig, Black Cobra, Black Lung, Blood Ceremony, Blues Pills, Bright Curse, Bus, Dee Calhoun, Captain Crimson, Child, La Chinga, Church of Misery, Conclave, Cough, Devil to Pay, Domkraft, Dot Legacy, Electric Citizen, Estoner, Eternal Elysium, Fatso Jetson & Gary Arce vs. Hifiklub, Fox 45, Goatess, Goblin Cock, Graves at Sea, Heavy Temple (they’ll be back on next year’s list), High Fighter, Holy Serpent, Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Inter Arma, Joy, Kaleidobolt, Khemmis, King Dead, Lord, Lord Vicar, Merchant, Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, Helen Money, Monkey3, Moon Coven, Mother Mooch, Necro, New Keepers of the Water Towers, T.G. Olson, Oranssi Pazuzu, Pooty Owldom, Russian Circles, Salem’s Pot, Samavayo, Seremonia, Skuggsjá, Sourvein, Spirit Adrift, Stone Machine Electric, Suma, Surya Kris Peters, Swans, Throttlerod, Virus, Wasted Theory, Wretch, and Zaum.

Thank You

In case none of the above has made it clear, I’ll just say flat out that 2016 has been an amazing year for music, and that every time I feel like maybe underground heavy has hit a wall and there’s nowhere left for it to go, sure enough about three minutes later another record shows up that slaps me in the face with a reminder of just how wrong that notion is.

If you’re still reading — how could you be? — thank you so much for your incredible support throughout 2016 and all the years The Obelisk has been in progress. I already know that 2017 is going to bring some incredible music as well, but that’s another list for another time, so I’ll just say again how much I appreciate your being a part of this ongoing project, how much it means to me to have you here. Thank you, thank you, and thank you.

And please, if there’s anything I forgot, got wrong, misspelled, or if you just think I used the word “breadth” too many times, please let me know about it in the comments.

One more time: Thank you.

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Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge: Experience Beyond (Plus Full Album Stream)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on October 14th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

lamp-of-the-universe-hidden-knowledge

[Click play above to stream Lamp of the Universe’s Hidden Knowledge in full. Album is out Oct. 15 on Clostridium Records.]

For those of us existing on a temporal plane, it’s been 15 years since the solo-project Lamp of the Universe made its debut with The Cosmic Union in 2001. Since then, Hamilton, New Zealand’s Craig Williamson, who at the time he started working under the extended alias was fresh off the 1999 final release from his prior band, Datura — more recently he’s worked in the trio Arc of Ascent — has largely stayed true to the outfit’s original intentions of tantric, meditative psychedelic folk. As his ninth album as Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge (on Clostridium Records and Astral Projection) demonstrates, neither has the project stagnated.

Even from where Williamson was on last year’s lush The Inner Light of Revelation (review here) — which teemed with life as the follow-up to splits with Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here) in 2014 and the 2013 LP Transcendence (review here), which, at the time, was Williamson‘s return to activity after four years since 2009’s Acid Mantra (review here) hinted at the direction Arc of Ascent would soon take — the four tracks/41 minutes of Hidden Knowledge show a forward step in their use of synth and the spaciness of their vibe overall.

It’s not just about drones and/or Eastern instrumentation — hell, I don’t think Williamson breaks out the sitar here at all — but about the space-folk swirl conjured across “Space Craft” (13:17), “Mu” (6:41), “Dawn of Nebula” (7:01) and “Netherworlds” (14:25) that makes them distinct from Williamson‘s past work while still remaining decidedly his own and recognizable as such.

It may seem like a fine line to some listeners, but for anyone who’s followed Lamp of the Universe for a while, the progression should be clear. Since coming back in 2013 after releasing the two Arc of Ascent albums, 2010’s Circle of the Sun (review here) and 2012’s The Higher Key (review here), Williamson has actively worked to expand the palette for Lamp of the Universe.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not chanting by the time “Netherworlds” gets down to its final couple minutes, but he’s doing it over what sounds like backwards-looped e-bow electric guitar and what might be loops running through an Echoplex or otherwise synthesized droning. And, frankly, that is a difference. One can hear it mostly on the bookending opener and closer, “Space Craft” starting and “Netherworlds” ending, just how widened the path of Lamp of the Universe has become.

When Williamson‘s voice first arrives, it does so atop a dreamscape of keys and far-back percussive beats, plus some swirl and periodic washes of cymbals, and as the track develops over its first half, it winds up making its impression with a standout organ line and deeply-mixed electric guitar soloing, executed patiently — of course — as one of the many layers winding its way out at the time.

This immersive, hypnotic flow holds, backed by the same far-off beat well into the second half of the track, unfolding gracefully such that the start of “Mu,” the shortest track here, is jarring with its forward acoustic strum, which feels positively earthbound by comparison. No doubt that’s the intention of the side A finisher, but Williamson keeps the line of manipulated e-bow guitar (or whatever it is) consistent and with material so molten, it’s going to flow from one song to the next either way, so it’s not like “Mu” is out of place, it’s just a jump from one feel to another where “Space Craft” felt like it could’ve gone on perpetually.

lamp-of-the-universe

The jump, however, is effective, and “Mu” becomes a standout moment on Hidden Knowledge in signature Lamp of the Universe form. Granted, reading that signature over time has become like drawing lines between stars to make constellation pictures, so it’s hardly a case of Williamson doing the same thing across different records, but the intimate feel conjured even in the organ and percussion-laced “Dawn of Nebula” is his own.

Keyboard swirl and other background wash fills out the track, which remains instrumental, and the sound that carries between “Dawn of Nebula” and “Netherworlds” has a classic electronics style, almost like something one might hear from Sula Bassana — if there was ever a cross-continental collaboration that needed to happen, there it is — but it nonetheless makes for an effective transition.

Vocals return for the closer, but the hypnosis is long since complete. E-bow guitar, or again, what sounds like it, works its way in and out, but “Netherworlds” is further distinguished through its use of drums, which arrive after about three minutes and keep together a march behind a wah-drenched guitar solo and the already-there-where-did-it-come-from resurgent line of e-bow.

All of this, performed and recorded by Williamson, as ever, sets up Hidden Knowledge‘s final movement, which plays out with no less grace than anything before it, moving toward the already-noted chanting that ends the album in a languid experimentalist wash that includes the sounds of running water and an underlying bassline that, subtly, turns out to have been there all along.

One might liken Hidden Knowledge to Acid Mantra, if only because like that album it seems to signal a shift in approach and arrangement that will progress from here — the inclusion of more synth and keys and space-minded atmospherics — but what form that might take, be it another band, a return from Arc of Ascent, or further exploration from Williamson as Lamp of the Universe, I wouldn’t hazard a guess.

These songs are nonetheless a logical branching out from where The Inner Light of Revelation left off in their blend of elements, and Lamp of the Universe remains as much an invitation to a ritual as a personal contemplation. The cosmos the project inhabits only continues to grow.

Lamp of the Universe on Thee Facebooks

Lamp of the Universe on Bandcamp

Hidden Knowledge at Clostridium Records webstore

Clostridium Records on Thee Facebooks

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